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Part Two: Victoria Law Explores "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women"

RBBcoverBy Joan Brunwasser

February 13, 2010

Welcome back for the second installment of my interview with Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars. Another factor in the women's virtual invisibility in prison is the way the institution itself stifles any complaints or dissent. If I recall correctly, filing complaints is considered on a par with inciting a riot, bringing retribution on those who dare to stand up to the system.

This even extends to non-threatening educational programs where inmates strive to better themselves. These efforts are often unceremoniously shut down. Why doesn't the system want women to become literate and aware of their rights? And what is the basic purpose of incarceration anyway? Is it punishment or rehabilitation?

If prisons were meant to rehabilitate, then the system should have no problems whatsoever with women's efforts to become literate, educated and aware of their rights. However, despite the mission statements of various departments of corrections across the country, prisons are not meant to rehabilitate those held within.

Prisons are and have been a means of social control. In the post Civil War South, new laws were passed to strip newly freed slaves of their rights under the slightest pretext. Under the Black Codes, people could be arrested and jailed for being outside after a certain hour, absence from work or possession of a firearm, but only if they were Black. The passing of the Black Codes radically changed the color of prisons in the South--prior to the Civil War, when slavery was the form of social control for Black people, the majority of those in prison were White. After the Civil War, incarceration became the means to strip newly freed Blacks of their freedom and their rights.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the rise of female independence caused an increase in women's incarceration for actions such as being drunk, engaging in pre- or extramarital sex, contracting a venereal disease, or "keeping bad company." Like the Black Codes in the South, these actions were only criminalized when they were performed by women; men could do all of these and not be penalized.

These days, laws like Three Strikes and other mandatory sentencing legislation as well as racial profiling by police across the country disproportionately target people in poor communities and communities of color. Again, we're seeing incarceration being used as a form of social control against those who are poor and of color. For instance, in 2000, the census found that 75% of New York State prisoners came from 7 neighborhoods in New York City.

These neighborhoods were poor communities of color where there were few resources and opportunities for the residents. Incarceration hasn't made those neighborhoods "safer" nor has it rehabilitated those who have been imprisoned so that they can return to their communities and thrive; instead, it's disrupted and destroyed families in these neighborhoods and made it even more difficult for people who were already at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to survive and thrive. Those who have been to prison face not only the same lack of resources and opportunities, but now have a criminal record which prevents them from getting certain jobs, qualifying for certain housing or social safety nets (for example, the 1996 welfare "reform" banned people with drug felonies for life. Similar legislation banned them from receiving governmental financial aid for college), etc.

It's also not a coincidence that mass incarceration began as the civil rights movement and various liberation struggles were gaining momentum in the United States. Government officials linked the growing civil unrest with crime and used arrest and incarceration to remove people from their communities *before* they could organize against social conditions and demand their rights.

So to get back to your question, if the system were set up to rehabilitate people, it would not be threatened by women (or people) becoming literate and educated and learning about their rights. It would actually encourage these actions.

Again though, the basic purpose of incarceration is not rehabilitation, but social control, so to have people learn about their rights and then begin challenging the injustices and oppressions around them is a threat.

And, following this thread, it would seem that the prison system would want the family to remain strong and united so that women, upon being freed, would more easily reintegrate into their lives and communities. If so, the way prisons seem to run in the opposite direction. As a mother, this aspect of our system bothers me the most. Can you talk a bit, Vikki, about how the system uses women prisoners' families and access to them to keep them in line? How many kids under 18 have a mother in prison? And what happens to these kids while their mothers are incarcerated?

In 2007, approximate 147,400 children under the age of 18 had a mother behind bars. Over 2/3 of all women in prison reported having a child under the age of 18. Keep in mind again that with self-reporting, the actual numbers tend to be higher. If there is someone else who can take care of her children when she is arrested, a mother may very well not report having minor children to the police or other authorities for fear of child welfare officials taking away her children.

But also keep in mind that about half of all incarcerated mothers were single mothers before being arrested and, given that those who go to prison tend to be those with the least amount of resources and opportunities, they have less of a support network to rely upon to help care for (and keep in contact with) their children.

A 2007 government study of incarcerated parents found that 37% of incarcerated mothers reported that their children were living with the father. In contrast, 89% of incarcerated fathers reported that their kids were living with the mother. An incarcerated mother's children are five times more likely to end up in foster care than an incarcerated father's children. And, as I pointed out earlier, this becomes particularly pernicious because of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act's (ASFA's) stringent timeline. (Here's another fact that will trouble you: the 15 month timeline was decided upon as a political compromise; it was not based on any child development theory or practice. When ASFA was first negotiated by Congress, one party wanted the timeline to be 12 months and the other wanted it to be 18 months. So hundreds of children are legally losing their parents based on a timeline that was a political compromise in Congress.)

The children of incarcerated mothers who don't end up in foster care are often cared for by other family members, like their grandparents.

For those who think that this is not such a bad thing, remember that people who go to prison are often at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and that the families and communities from which they come are as well. That means that grandparents may already be struggling financially (and perhaps health-wise as well). Given that women's prisons tend to be built far from the urban communities they called home before incarceration, it is a strain for caregivers to take children to visit their mothers. One study found that 60% of incarcerated mothers are imprisoned at least 100 miles away from their home communities. Approximately half of all incarcerated mothers in state and federal prisons report never having had a visit with their child(ren).

Keeping in contact by phone is also a huge challenge, one that can be almost impossible for those with limited resources. In Colorado, for example, a 20-minute phone call costs $3.80 in state or $4.60 for an out-of-state phone call. Again, given that family members and caregivers often come from the same socioeconomic circumstances as the women in prison, these costs can be prohibitive.

Even when a family has the means to visit their loved one in prison, they are subject to the whims and caprices of the prison staff on duty. A woman in Colorado recently sent me a few examples of how prison officials can arbitrarily withhold visits:

  • Last month, my roommate was expecting a visit from her family, including her four-year-old daughter. Visits begin at 1 pm, but she was not called until 3:30 pm. She learned that her family had arrived at 1:45, but the guard at the front desk told them that the visiting room was full and that they would have to leave and return later if they wanted to visit. He told them not to come back until 3 pm and that they could not wait in the parking lot or sit in their car.

Later, another woman, who had been in a visit that day, heard about this, told her that there had been an empty table next to hers during the entire afternoon. Of course, there was no way for my roommate's family to know this in order to question being turned away. My roommate knew even less; all she could do was wait and worry.

  • Last weekend, my friend was to have two days of visits from her mother and daughter, who had driven 1200 miles to see her. On the second day, her mom arrived wearing the exact same shirt as on the previous day. The officer on this day did not permit her mother to visit until she left and bought a new shirt, despite the fact that it had not been a problem 24 hours earlier.

All the while, my friend watched from the window as her family pulled into the parking lot, walked in, then she watched them leave without knowing what was going on. She sat on the stairs, devastated and crying for what she believed was a lost visit until her family returned and she was paged one hour later. One hour is precious time, especially when our families drive across the country to visit.
Now that I've given you some context as to how hard it is for mothers to stay in contact with their children and families, I'll answer your question about the system using women's access to families to keep them in line.

As you can see from the above examples, prison staff can arbitrarily impede a woman's ability to visit with her family, even when the woman has not been challenging prison conditions. Prison administrators also use visiting to punish those who challenge existing prison conditions. A woman incarcerated in New York noted that prison staff would actually turn away family members who were visiting women who had been seen as problematic.

Other times, prison officials have acted to strip a mother of all ability to see her child(ren). After one woman successfully sued the Michigan Department of Corrections for sexual abuse, guards targeted her cell and belongings for frequent searches. In the eight months after MDOC adopted a policy banning visits for prisoners with repeated substance abuse violations, the woman, who had never tested positive for any drug during her eight years of incarceration, received four tickets for substance abuse. "I received two substance abuse tickets in one day," she recalled. "One was for borrowing Motrin (Ibuprofen) from a prisoner for cramps. I also had Iron pills that had been prescribed to me that were a day over the expiration date." These tickets prevented her from having her daughter visit her.

A woman in the federal system had been speaking out against prison conditions in the facility where she was housed. She was finally eligible for a furlough, which was a chance to leave the prison for 36 hours and visit her family at home. The prison's unit manager delayed approving her furlough papers, stating, "It was concluded that you may be a threat because you might contact the media and manipulate the system."

She did eventually receive her furlough and wrote, "Here I am enjoying my sons in my arms and wondering if it is worth it to put my next 7 day furlough and half way house at risk, if I continue writing from prison." However, she concluded, "But my dear friends, I feel that if I do not write to you I am as good as dead. The truth is important to me, and such it should be told."

I give you these examples to illustrate the all-too-real threat that incarcerated mothers face when deciding whether to speak out or otherwise challenge prison conditions. However, despite these threats, mothers (and other women) have spoken out against, challenged and resisted unjust prison conditions.

This breaks my heart. Would I have the strength to persevere in the face of this? I wonder. Let's break here. When we return for the final portion of our interview, Vikki will tell interested readers how we can help women in American prisons.

Part 1 | Part 3 | Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Vikki Law's Page


Victoria Law Explores "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women"

RBBcoverBy Joan Brunwasser

February 11, 2010

In late December, I interviewed Ramsey Kanaan of PM Press. In the process, I perused their catalog. One of the books that caught my eye was Victoria Law's, which I subsequently read. It was equally fascinating and harrowing. Welcome to OpEdNews, Vikki. Please tell our readers how you came to write Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women?

In college, I had spent a semester researching post-Attica prisoner organizing and resistance. At the end of that semester, I looked back at what I had found and realized that every instance, except for one, was about male prisoners. I talked this over with my professor and spent the next semester exploring incarcerated women's issues and their ways of resisting or challenging their conditions of confinement. I also explored why their actions weren't as well-documented (or remembered) as their male counterparts.

To do this, I set aside all preconceived notions of what I thought of when I thought of prisoner organizing and started reading books and articles specifically about women in prison. I found a LOT of literature that covered specifically female issues like motherhood and pregnancy behind bars. Issues of parenting (and, of course, pregnancy) are often not even mentioned in books and articles about male prisoner organizing leading people who are looking for instances of prisoner resistance to ignore how people in prison organize around parenting and family issues. Battering and abuse is another issue that comes up in literature about incarcerated women, but again, since that's not an issue that we see impacting men going to prison, it isn't perceived as as a "prison issue."

I also scoured the news (and alternative media, mostly prison-related zines) for mentions of actions by incarcerated women. Once I found that someone had done something (filed a lawsuit, complained to the press, launched a hunger strike, etc), I used the websites of either that state prison system or the federal Bureau of Prisons to find the woman's contact information and sent her a letter explaining who I was and what I was researching. I asked if she would be willing to share her stories and experiences with me.

Not wanting to take without giving back, I offered what I could: I offered to look up lawsuits for them and send them copies of court decisions; I offered to look up other resources for them; I offered to send them books via the Books Through Bars program that I helped start here in NYC; I sent stamps so that they could not only respond to me, but also write letters to other groups or people; in one cases, I offered to call the woman's children when she was unable to call.

I got a lot of reading, researching and writing done in those four months. That one semester really opened my eyes about the gendered perceptions that we, as a society, have about prisons as well as about what resistance looks like (both inside prison walls and outside).

I also want to add that a huge part of my ability to get so much research and writing done in four months was because I had had a baby daughter 6 weeks before the semester started; being stuck inside during the winter with a newborn gave me a LOT of time to read, respond to letters, contemplate ideas and issues (mostly while nursing), and revise draft after draft. I doubt I would have had the same ability to concentrate (and write) if I had still been as a childfree person rushing off from one political event to another at various hours of the day and night or if my daughter had been older, more mobile and needing more direct attention.

photo: Maggie Wrigley

That was the start of what became Resistance Behind Bars. After the semester ended, I kept in contact with most of the women and continued to add their stories and experiences to my paper. I sent the paper to a man named Anthony Rayson, who publishes many many zines of prison writings. He, in turn, photocopied the paper and brought it with him to a talk he gave about prisoner organizing; someone at his talk took the paper and turned it into a pamphlet and started distributing it.

I continued to add stories and facts to my original paper as I came across them. I also started taking sections of my paper, like the part about women's organizing for better health care and women creating their own media, and sent them to activist publications like Clamor Magazine, Punk Planet and off our backs.

Almost 8 years after I had first started exploring this subject, I met Ramsey Kanaan at PM Press. He was interested in publishing my work as a book. I wrote to the women who had shared their stories with me and told them about the opportunity to spread their experiences to wider audiences. All of them agreed to have their stories published, although a couple of them asked that their real names not be used.

Following the example of a few other articles by activist groups on the outside written about women in prison, I decided that I would share my drafts with the women whom I was writing about. Every woman got multiple drafts of the chapter(s) that her stories and experiences appeared in. Each woman had the opportunity to add, correct, update or remove anything that pertained to her.

That must have been incredibly time-consuming.

In a couple of instances, women also commented on some of the material and information in that chapter. For instance, when I sent the chapter on education to RJ, she commented extensively on a study about higher education in women's prisons, pointing out that the study made prison seem like an idealized environment for women to pursue a higher education and highlighting some of the harsher daily realities for incarcerated students.

I also had incredible help from several people on the outside who read my entire manuscript at various stages, gave feedback and asked questions that forced me to explore the issues further.

And, being the mother of a small child (although she might disagree with the characterization of herself as "small"), I want to stress that a book-length work would not have been possible without the huge amount of support I received from both my friends and the people with whom I organize. I realize that not all mothers get this type of support, although they should, and that I'm extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful support system.

That's the long answer. When I told her about the interview and this question, my daughter, now age 9, suggested a shorter response: "There are some things in the world that I disagree with. Also, many people don't think about women when they think about prisons and so I wanted to write a book that brought attention to them."

If we look at the imprisoned as being at the bottom of the totem pole, women prisoners are, in general, even lower. Women face many disadvantages that men do not. Could you talk about that a bit, Vikki?

When prisons were first built in the U.S., they were designed for men. Women were not thought about when prisons were designed. When women were incarcerated, they were stuck in the attics or basements of the penitentiaries. Sometimes they were even stuck in the cells next to male prisoners (and then were blamed for any disturbance that their presence caused among the male prison population). They were given less access to the few programs and activities that the men were allowed, such as access to the chapel, medical care or to go outdoors. They were also in danger of sexual abuse from the male prison staff.

Keeping that in mind, we can see how, even centuries later, incarceration is still gendered as male and thus prisons are designed with men in mind. For instance, prison health care is geared towards men. This is not to say that men in prison have excellent medical care, mind you. Health care in prison is atrocious for all genders, but it also does not take into account the specific health concerns of women, such as menstruation, pregnancy, breast cancer, cervical cancer, etc. (I also want to add that the prison health care system takes into account even less the concerns of transgendered and transsexual prisoners)

Another aspect that affects women much more often than it affects men is parenting. This reflects not only the way prisons were originally designed but the way our society, as a whole, is gendered so that the bulk of parenting falls upon mothers. The majority of people in prison are parents, but when a father goes to prison, often times a female relative (such as a wife, girlfriend, mother or sister) will take on raising his child(ren). When a mother goes to prison, she's much more likely to already be a single parent. Lacking the same support as her male counterpart, her children are five times more likely to end up in the foster care system.

This becomes particularly pernicious because, under the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (or ASfA), if a child is in foster care for fifteen of the last twenty-two months, the child welfare agency is required to file a petition to terminate parental rights. Only 2 states have made exceptions for incarcerated parents.

However, most people don't think of parenting when they think about prison. Even incarcerated fathers don't necessarily recognize parenting as a prison issue. Last year, I did a talk at a reentry program for formerly incarcerated men. Half of the men were fathers; all of them had their kids cared for by their wives or other relatives while they had been locked up. None of them had had their children placed in the foster care system because there was no one willing to care for them while their father was incarcerated. The men were startled to learn about the 15-month time line of ASFA because their children were taken care of and so ASFA didn't impact them.

Yet another aspect that disproportionately affects women in prison yet is ignored is abuse. Over half of women in local jails, state and federal prisons report having experienced past physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. Keep in mind that people tend to underreport experiences of abuse, so that number is, in reality, much higher.

A Bureau of Justice report found that women in prison are three times more likely to have been physically and/or sexually abused before incarceration than men. However, prisons not only lack the resources to help support women in working through past abuse, but often perpetuate the abuse. Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, gender cannot be considered when employing guards. This means that women have the right to work in male prisons and men have the right to work in female prisons. In many, many cases, this has led to sexual abuse of women prisoners by male staff members, who often have the right to be in sensitive areas such as the toilet area, the shower area, the housing units where women dress, undress and sleep, etc.

I could go on and on about how women face additional problems and dangers than their male counterparts in prison, but I'll stop with these examples. I do want to emphasize though that I am not pointing out these disadvantages to call for more "women-friendly" prisons. The construction of the first women's prison units were the result of well-intentioned reformers' horror at the abuses and depravities that women suffered when they were housed in male prisons.

However, when the first female-only prison unit was built in Illinois in 1859, the number of women being sent to prison tripled because judges became less reluctant to send women to the hellholes that were prison.

More recently, in 2006, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) identified 4500 women who did not need to be imprisoned and instead would be better off in their home communities getting drug treatment, job training, etc. Instead of putting together a plan to release them, however, CDCR proposed building 4500 new beds in what they called Female Rehabilitative Community Corrections Centers, essentially mini-prisons, in the urban areas where many of these women had lived before arrest **without** closing any of the beds in the existing women's prisons. In essence, their recommendation means that 4500 more women could be sentenced to prisons. The existence of these mini-prisons also meant that, lacking many of these treatment programs on the outside, judges would be more likely to sentence women to these Corrections Centers to access these programs.

However, the bill that was finally passed in 2007, AB76, did not address the root causes of rising female incarceration: mandatory sentencing, racial profiling, poverty and the feminization of poverty, or the lack of support systems for women leaving prison. Instead of focusing on reforming the prison system to make it more habitable for women, I'm a firm believer that we should shift these resources back into the communities to address the reasons why women are sent to prison in the first place.

Okay, Vikki. Let's pause here. When we return, you can tell our readers how our prison system mitigates against families staying together and how prisoners' children can be used as pawns to control their mothers' behavior.

Part 2 | Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Vikki Law's Page


Homeland Security:

Why "No-Fly" Just Doesn't Fly
By Randall Amster J.D., Ph.D.
t r u t h o u t | News Analysis
Febraury 3, 2010

Here's a quick quiz: What do Ted Kennedy, Cat Stevens and Nelson Mandela have in common? Okay, so that's an easy one for you folks with attention spans longer than it takes to type out a tweet. Indeed, all of these luminaries have appeared on the "No-Fly List," also known as the "Terrorist Watch List," which is used to prevent suspect persons from being able to fly on commercial aircraft in or out of the United States. The list was established after 9/11, and is estimated to contain perhaps half a million names, although its precise workings are shrouded by the vicissitudes of "national security."

Following the Christmas Day bombing attempt, it has been reported by CNN that "the US government has lowered the threshold for information deemed important enough to put suspicious individuals on a watch list or no-fly list, or have their visa revoked." Officials have stated that "the new standard is much lower than before December 25. For example, decisions could be taken to put someone on a no-fly list or a watch list based on one credible source, instead of the previous standard of using multiple sources." As Wired subsequently reported, not everyone on a "watch list" automatically winds up on the "no fly list," although the implications of being on any incarnation of these lists can include immediate arrest, the collection of biometric data, information being gathered about contacts, and notification of local "fusion centers" that bring together law enforcement agencies at all levels.

Potential abuses of such all-encompassing and secretive powers are obvious, ranging from relatively minor inconveniences such as travel delays to more serious breaches of basic constitutional rights; as the ACLU has observed, the No-Fly List "is so broad that it is certain to include many people who pose no danger and have done nothing illegal." At an even more basic level, practices and policies of this sort brush up against the spirit of the 1976 Church Committee Report on intelligence abuses in the US, which warned in unequivocal terms that "unless new and tighter controls are established by legislation, domestic intelligence activities threaten to undermine our democratic society and fundamentally alter its nature." If anything, the ensuing decades have brought about a move away from the report's recommendations, and in the process have taken us closer to the predicted demise of democracy.

Obviously, these are crucial concerns that deserve to be explored at length. And yet, despite their pragmatic repercussions, there is a sense in which these issues can become something of a theoretical abstraction deployed in the service of expounding upon the Orwellian nature of our emerging surveillance society. As tempting as this is, I have more mundane notions in mind here. These policies impact actual people, their friends and families, and their ability to travel unfettered. They keep the populace in a state of fear and anxiety, grant clandestine officials control over our lives, and justify deeper incursions into not only our civil liberties but our capacities to live freely as well. In short, such policies are dehumanizing, rendering us mere data points in a complex matrix that exists beyond our purview.

One of these dehumanized points of data, however, now has a name and a face. A longtime friend has recently been informed that he is persona non grata in the US, having found himself on the No-Fly List without explanation or meaningful opportunity for rebuttal. Because of this, he has had to cancel a speaking tour here, in which he was to visit universities and community centers around the country, discussing his three new books as well as topics including social movements and political theory. It means that he won't be able to visit with friends and colleagues or to forge new connections here around his life's work. It also places a potentially permanent constraint on his travel to the US, and an official taint on his character as well.

His name is Gabriel Kuhn. I won't detail his entire biography here (you can read more about him on Wikipedia and on his PM Press author's page), but the basic gist is that he's an award-winning author who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Innsbruck. Kuhn has been politically active in ways consonant with his scholarship, focusing in particular on post-structuralism, social movements and anarchism. He was also a semi-professional soccer player and has lived in and traveled through numerous locales around the world. He presently resides in Sweden, where he has lived since 2006.

Beyond the mere biographical data, Kuhn is one of the kindest and most decent people you could ever hope to meet. I've known him for fifteen years and am proud to count him as one of my closest friends and colleagues. His gentle nature and good humor are evident, and he's a particularly thoughtful person when it comes to things people often take for granted, such as staying in touch across the miles and years, asking about professional activities and family news, and sharing personal stories of his life and travels. Kuhn has never been charged with a crime or an immigration violation, and is a highly respected scholar in the fields of radical politics and anarchist praxis, among other spheres of inquiry.

Yes, Kuhn is an anarchist. But don't get too excited about that - like most, he's an anarchist who believes in community and solidarity, not violence. He has a sophisticated outlook on reconciling the longstanding individual/community tension that lies at the heart of most social and political theories, as indicated by his statement regarding a recent controversy over tactics for change: "Anarchy can only work if the notion of individual freedom is accompanied by the notion of individual responsibility. Where the latter is missing, 'individual freedom' only becomes a pretext for bourgeois egoism, capitalist greed or - as in this case - disrespectful and self-centered conduct...." In other words, he believes that freedom necessitates responsibility if it is to be anything more than an excuse for self-indulgence and disrespecting others.

In this sense, Kuhn's values are decidedly anti-terroristic. While he explores historical and contemporary phenomena such as piracy and radical environmentalism in his work, he sees these as complex responses to repressive and destructive official policies. His focus unflinchingly remains on those struggling from "below" in our global system, a point strongly suggested in his reply when I asked whether he wanted me to write about his present dilemma:

"Obviously, this is not about some terrible injustice being done to me (I have a comfortable life here in Stockholm, can travel to many other countries, etc.), but the whole thing points at some more general and far more serious problems:

1) "The complex of immigration and 'national security': Again, in my case, no personal harm is done. In other cases these things mean separation from loved ones, exclusion from educational and economic possibilities, and in the worst cases torture and death....

2) "The power that authorities get in the name of national security: The most troubling aspect of the no-fly list is that, all in the name of national security, you will receive zero information on why you're on the list, since when, how you can get off it. Nothing. Even if you file a complaint, they will only promise to 'look into the matter.' They do not promise to provide any information at the end of the process. The possible consequences of this are obvious. Radicals can be put on the list at random and then stay there; it can undermine communication, exchange, and networking of activists and social movements to a frightening degree.

3) "The fact that measures like the no-fly list do not only concern US Americans, but others too - many who are not even allowed to visit. I think this is an aspect that's often overlooked in the US debate on anti-terrorism legislation which (understandably) focuses very much on the issue of US citizens' rights."

Contrast Kuhn's nuanced analysis with the self-congratulatory and monotone rhetoric of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which administers the No-Fly and Terrorist Watch Lists:

"The 'No-Fly' list has been an essential element of the aviation security - it keeps known terrorists off planes. TSA and our Federal partners, including the intelligence and law enforcement communities, have worked together to combine our collective knowledge into one list that protects our country, transportation systems, and airline passengers. TSA has dedicated staff to review and scrub the existing No-Fly list and ensure all nominees meet the standing criteria. This review will establish the baseline for new records being added to the system and will significantly improve the quality of the data."

The TSA states that its mission is to protect "the Nation's transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce." It utilizes a system based on "layers of security" that includes the obvious airport checkpoints and also "intelligence gathering and analysis, checking passenger manifests against watch lists, random canine team searches at airports, federal air marshals, federal flight deck officers and more security measures both visible and invisible to the public." The agency operates largely under the cloak of "national security" - meaning, as the ACLU notes, that it is impossible to know "who is or is not on these lists" and that certain people will be denied freedom of movement without due process or effective means to contest their status.

Against this, we are supposed to be comforted by the TSA's assertion that their system deters "known terrorists" and that all of the people on the No-Fly List "meet the standing criteria." Even putting aside repeated and bizarre "false positives" such as Ted Kennedy and Nelson Mandela, there are further accounts that cannot be squared with any sort of logic or good sense:

"The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has denied repeatedly that there are children on the infamous 'no-fly list.' Ever since little Mikey Hicks was in the news the other day about his consistent 'pat downs' at the airport, it has been brought to the public's attention that the FBI and TSA need to review their security precaution. TSA has vehemently defended their program saying that there are NO children on the no-fly list. But no one could address why Michael Winston Hicks has been getting frisked since he was 2 years old.... Now if what TSA says is true, why is it that the airlines don't see him and immediately know he is not a terrorist? Also, why is it that the airlines consistently harass this little boy? And why is it that several incidents have occurred in the past?"

Undoubtedly, the task of balancing security with liberty is among the most daunting of our time. The problem with archaic and secretive mechanisms such as the No-Fly and Terrorist Watch Lists is that they are rife with potential for abuse and perversion. Profiling people based on ethnic criteria, harassing activists and exacting a toll on political adversaries are all-too-real manifestations of these policies. The case of Gabriel Kuhn, which quite likely is but one of many, has all the makings of someone being persecuted for the nature of their views rather than the reality of their conduct. In typical fashion, despite his obvious "sadness and disappointment" at being denied entry into the US, Kuhn still sees the potential for something good to come of this situation: "If this particular case can help draw some attention to these issues, at least it serves a purpose." With the state of security rapidly eroding the fabric of liberty, we should all hope that such episodes cast a critical light upon the shadows of fear and control.

In Gabriel's own words

A Black Panther's Fight for Freedom Behind Bars

By Charles Morse
Color Lines
January 20, 2010

Mumia Abu-Jamal, Geronimo Pratt and Dhoruba bin Wahad: these are some of the best-known Black Panthers who have spent major portions of their lives confined within the state’s so-called “correctional” institutions.

Robert Hillary King—a member of the Angola 3, a trio of Black men incarcerated for decades in Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary for crimes that they did not commit—belongs to this grim fraternity. From the Bottom of the Heap (PM Press) recounts his journey from a youth of poverty and racism, to prison, to the Panthers, to release after 31 years of detention, including 29 in solitary.

King uses his own history to show how the racial and economic hierarchies in mid-20th century Louisiana condemned most Black people to lives of insecurity and fear.

King’s major incarceration began in 1970. A growing political awareness and an encounter with imprisoned Panthers prompted him to join the Party and help organize its only recognized prison chapter.

Falsely convicted of killing a guard, King was placed in solitary. Although he writes little about these years, he tells us that his political convictions enabled him to survive.

Freed in 2001, he emerged with a deepened dedication to change. His memoir is among his many post-release efforts, along with his work on behalf of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, the other two members of the Angola 3, who are still in prison.

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Self-Defense for Radicals on the Unlikely Blog

By Gabriel Ricard
The Unlikely Blog

Writer, martial artist and activist Mickey Z. still has that wonderful sense of humor. You could certainly qualify knowing this as good news for the rest of us. It’s not new information to anyone familiar with his books. His 2008 dark-comedy endeavor CPR for Dummies was a brutal, wild story and one of the best social satires to come out in recent memory. It was bleak stuff but proved Z’s talent for story-driven farce. It also showed his effortless skill at putting some of his more enduring interests, martial arts and social activism to good use in his Armageddon-battered-world-gone-mad. Those interests aren’t likely to leave his work anytime soon either. That’s fine. As long as he can utilize those passions and keep the humor running strong, as he does in his pamphlet, Self-Defense for Radicals: A-Z Guide for Subversive Struggle, then none of us has any reason to complain.

The book is very serious in what it promises you. This really is an alphabet of tips and thoughts on how to best stand up for what drives you. This sort of thing is especially useful should someone feel the need to disagree with your opinions by trying to smash you in the head with a brick. Mickey has put his knowledge of physical self-defense to work in his writing before but has really never been quite as brilliant in doing that as he is here. The book is genuinely useful but doesn’t sacrifice Z’s trademark sense of humor or ability to know what his readers are thinking and respond accordingly. If you’ve ever wanted a really intelligent, witty and rather driven man to come over to your house and teach you how to stick up for yourself Self-Defense for Radicals is probably your best bet. Like any good pamphlet, it communicates its wisdom in sharp detail that’s quick to the point but doesn’t skip over anything Z. wants you to know. Good stuff, but it’s much more than just useful information. The best of Mickey Z’s work is able to entertain at the same time, and that’s certainly true here. Throughout his A-Z breakdown of tips and opinions (his entries for L and M are particularly wonderful) Mickey Z. adds just enough extras to give the work his trademark personality. Appropriate quotes from Bruce Lee to Angela Davis are included with several of the entries. They read like thoughts from a friend who really wants to share with you some of the bits of wisdom picked up from everything they’ve seen or done. Those illustrations from Richard Cole don’t hurt the pamphlet’s appeal either.

Everything is laid out in perfect order. There’s no question that Mickey has yet another essential read on his hands. The majority of Self-Defense for Radicals is very clever, funny stuff, but it wouldn’t be Mickey Z. if a little bit of his work didn’t frighten or even seriously piss you off. Mickey Z. succeeds in making these emotions work for the sake of the pamphlet by avoiding a high horse or any kind of soap box. He lets the statistics speak for themselves. His humor, conversational tone keep those statistics in perspective (the world isn’t completely terrible, after all). Those drawings from Richard Cole help, too. All of it makes for a well-rounded trip around Mickey Z’s philosophy, but don’t for a second forget what this work is meant to do. It’s a wake-up call. Self-Defense for Radicals is a strongly worded suggestion to start taking better care of yourself in every facet of life. That sounds aggressive, but it really isn’t meant to choke you on its opinions. It simply suggests and then leaves the rest up to you. If you’ve been looking for something to get you off the couch and out the door you’re in good hands. Chances are you’ll find only frustration in hoping for something more effective than this.

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Need a Bit of Cooking Inspiration?

By Denis Faye
January 28. 2010

On the other hand, you'll find not so much as a boiled-egg recipe in Vegan Freak. In fact, you'll find very little useful information at all. Instead, you'll get a 217-page diatribe from two very militant vegans who apparently feel anyone who doesn't see the world exactly as they do is a complete monster. Any karma these two may have earned treating animals fairly has probably been voided thanks to the bile they spit on these pages.

The book is intended to be a hilarious primer for people interested in making the animal-products-free shift, but it fails on so many levels. They operate on the assumption that non-vegans make it their lives' work to torment and mock the chosen few who have seen the meat-free light. Then, with no apparent awareness of their hypocrisy, they go on to mock non-vegans with such rancor that were I on the fence about giving up animal products, I'd run out and buy a pair of Doc Martens boots and a hamburger about halfway through the book just to spite them. (Full disclosure: I'm a pescatarian and agree with many of their stances, if not their attitude.)

More importantly, they don't even start offering usable information on going vegan until three-quarters of the way through, and even then, a lot of that advice involves suggesting other books to check out.

So I suggest you skip Vegan Freak and check out those other books instead. If you want to learn more about veganism, save yourself a lot of bad juju and check out Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis for great how-to tips, and Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero for tons of great recipes.

No one likes it when sweet ol' Bessie the cow takes a bolt to the head, Mr. and Mrs. Torres, but life's too short to be that much of a hater.

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Revolution within the Revolution in Venezuela

By Lainie Cassell
Monthly Review Zine
January 26, 2010

In 1999, under newly elected President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan people were given a rare opportunity: to participate in the writing of what would become arguably the world's most radical constitution.  The result of an extensive constitutional process and an assembly voted on by Venezuelan citizens contrasts with the United States constitution, one created by white landholders centuries ago.

The document, carried in the back pockets of ordinary Venezuelan citizens, has become a pillar of the Chavez-led "Bolivarian Revolution."  For the first time in Venezuelan history the constitution declares housing, health care, and employment as basic human rights and argues in favor of a more participatory form of democracy.

The constitutional process indeed helped empower a number of organizations from the Afro-Venezuelan Network to peasant militias.  These movements not only struggle for the government to uphold the constitution but have become the driving force behind some of Chavez's most radical policies.

Venezuela Speaks!  Voices from the GrassrootsVenezuela Speaks!  Voices from the Grassroots is the first book in the English language that has captured the challenges of bottom-up movements under President Chavez.  In the book, co-authors Carlos Martinez, Michael Fox, and Jojo Farrell offer a much-needed history of revolutionary Venezuela and an analysis of current events, interwoven among interviews with some of Venezuela's most important leaders among the people.

Fox, Martinez, and Farrell are all part of a small network of internationals who have traveled to remote areas in Venezuela and have lived in the numerous shantytowns that line Caracas' hillsides.  The result of their time abroad is a collective history of Venezuela that most visitors and certainly US media have not been able to capture.

Through the oral accounts of activists, Venezuela Speaks! also offers insiders' views of the Bolivarian Revolution and the struggle towards participatory democracy.  The activists interviewed have engaged in occupations of factories and land, the development of popular education, and the creation of an alternative culture and media.

However, readers on the left seeking a rosy account of the "Bolivarian revolution" are likely to be disappointed.  Most of the book consists of interviews with an impressive variety of individuals who refuse to hold back their criticisms.  Their stories bring to life the true struggle for revolutionary change, one that faces two main challenges defined in the first chapter by housing activist Iraida Morocoima.

It is important for people to understand that we are fighting on two fronts: the struggle against the opposition so that they don't alter our goals, and the struggle against the government bureaucrats that support large financial capital who continue to give these lands to the large construction companies.  That's why we say this is a process of revolution within the revolution.

The Bolibourgeoisie (a name given to bureaucrats within Chavez's administration), she argues, serve as a fence between the people and Chavez that often stops the effective implementation of the constitution.

However, as the short-lived 2002 coup d'etat proves, Chavez's return to office was largely a result of mass mobilization from the grassroots movements.  His mere existence, therefore, depends on the strong support of some of the most radical groups in the country.

The grassroots movements also implement the constitution when the government is unable or unwilling.  As women's rights activist Yanahir Reyes argues in the book, women's struggles go beyond the language of gender inclusion used in the constitution.  She goes on to assert that only through grassroots and participatory education will a more gender inclusive culture be created.

While Reyes applauds the government for the creation of institutions to support women, she admits: "[T]he bureaucracy swallows good intentions.  I think it is a mistake to keep strengthening the institutions.  The communities are ready to make the changes.  The struggle continues to be the divide between institutions and popular power."

The stories told in Venezuela Speaks! also bring into question our own ideas of democracy as solely representative and open the door for a debate on a new form of democracy, one dependent on the active participation of its citizens.

As a result this book should also serve as a tool for activists outside Venezuela, including activists in the United States.  It shows how, through debate, self-criticism, and popular education and media, people are able to free themselves from the manipulation of state and corporate power.

Whether the revolution can go beyond Hugo Chavez and the support of his government is still unclear.  However, what is apparent is the slogan presented in the introduction: "The people have awoken.  With or without Chavez, Venezuela is no longer the same."

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Self-Defense for Radicals on The People's Voice

By Chellis Glendinning
The People's Voice
January 25, 2010

The prospect of setting words to page about Mickey Z.’s Self-Defense for Radicals catalyzed a certain queasiness. It brought up the rosebush reality of…violence.

In an era of drop-of-the-hat planetary destruction, as dirty wars erupt like acne and respect for Gandhi’s ahimsa has re-blossomed like Persephone’s return, as former Weather Underground activist Mark Rudd is crisscrossing the U.S. calling for a pacifist movement and Hugo Chavez is pronouncing that armed struggle is passé—to purvey violence seems patently verboten.

Martial artist Mickey Z. tackles my hesitancy on the first page, laying out a scenario of a strong-arm attack on a friend and asking if I would pray, meditate, and go philosophical-–or if I would stomp my foot, jab the dude’s eyes, kick him in the balls, grab my friend, and bolt. It’s the de rigueur challenge presented to every armed-services draftee applying for Conscientious Objector status, perhaps thorny for he who is seeking community service over combat--but oh so obvious to the rest of us.

Violence has long been a subject requiring re-clarification. Violence against whom/what? Why/how? are the questions. Is it against a child? Or an animal? Is it aimed at a corporate chief’s unoccupied fourth mansion? Or the window at Citibank?

Feminists provided a new layer of clarification in the 1970s, proposing that violence consists of any exertion of force that injures or abuses a person, that it exists on a spectrum from invisible to blatant, psychological to bloody. France’s recent law criminalizing verbal abuse in marriage signals that the lesson may be penetrating in some quarters.

Social activist Z. stands with the feminists, and his business is defense in a violent world. Avoid poorly lit areas, he reminds us. Vary your normal routes and routines. Toss an object at an attacker. When grabbed from behind, nod your head forward, then thrust it back. And scream. Always scream.

But landing a left hook, he makes clear, occurs in a social context in which power-over is not random. Ninety-five percent of domestic assaults, he quotes, are perpetrated on women by men. Twenty-five percent of girls and seventeen percent of boys are sexually assaulted by the time they reach age 18. Each and every day 600 women are raped in the U.S. Ninety-six percent of hate-crimes are assaults on gays and lesbians.

Too, violence is perpetrated against all living beings by transnational corporations and the governments that facilitate their exploits. Thirteen million tons of toxic chemicals are released into the biosphere every day, he points out. Eighty-one tons of mercury are emitted annually by electricity generation plants. Seventy thousand U.S. citizens die each year from aggravations caused by air pollution. Awareness of these violations, and defense against them, are part of Z.’s program as well.

That Self-Defense for Radicals is called a guide for “subversive struggle” suggests that it might be carried into a demo against the World Bank or the G-20. While such a pamphlet would surely be an addition to movement literature, Z. comes on more Zapatista-like in his notion of subversion: it is to be mustered at every moment in all interactions every day. Like a poet he rocks us out of the staid categories that perpetuate separation of the facets of reality, heaving us instead into the organic flow of personal and political, collective and individual--all the while providing practical tools that expand one’s notion of freedom in a violent world.

And more: I sense that “subversive action” refers to the end result of the read. This is a simple little pamphlet, and yet Z. manages to light a street torch to the never-queasy dedication to “fighting back” in the biggest sense.

Self-Defense for Radicals: A to Z Guide for Subversive Struggle (PM Pamphlet) by Mickey Z.



Chellis Glendinning is the author of five books, including Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy and Chiva: A Village takes on the Global Heroin Trade. She is also a licensed psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery and lives in Chimayó, New Mexico.

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Self Defense for Radicals in Feminist Review

By Katy Pine
Feminist Review
January 31st, 2010

While it’s true that most conflict can and should be resolved with nonviolence, even peace-loving radicals like Mickey Z., the author of this alphabetical guide to self-defense, acknowledge that an absolute aversion to violence is nearly impossible in our war-loving (yet God-fearing) society that seems to tolerate blood-n-guts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In a country where a woman is raped every forty-six seconds, peaceful resolution can quickly become a warm fuzzy afterthought. The reality is that standing up for something usually requires standing up against something. That something may be a repressive and stubborn government, or it may be a big, scary and armed figure looming in the dark. Either way, knowing how to use your body in emergencies is as important as knowing how to argue for your beliefs in the face of adversity.

Mickey does not discourage standing firm in pacifism, but advocates that we all (especially women, who are statistically at a greater risk of physical attack) prepare for the worst. You may choose not to live in fear of fire, but this doesn't mean you forgo the fire alarm. In this vein, Mickey has armed us with a manual of self-defense techniques cleverly written with the help of motivating anecdotes and quirky cartoons by fellow radical, Richard Cole. Whether it is mustering every bit of might in our bodies to scream and run, or delivering a precise finger jab to the eyes followed by a hard kick to the balls, Mickey supplies us with a handy bag of tricks to use under pressure. The guy knows what he's talking about—with a personal history of martial arts, kickboxing and personal training—he values equally the power of body with the power of mind.

Sprinkled with quotes from Bruce Lee, Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, and others, Mickey Z.'s Self-Defense for Radicals makes for a quick and entertaining read for anyone conscious of the potential danger we face. Pass it on to your mother, sister, daughter, and anyone else whose safety you worry about. It is an empowering statement dovetailing the greater feminist movement, however personally defined. Mickey states that, "many physical attacks are essentially oppressive gestures spawned by a perceived ability to exploit a weaker (sic) gender. Any struggle to eradicate such gestures is by definition self-defense."

Essentially, we can conceive fighting back as feminism in action. Whether you are a practiced veteran of the martial arts, or a ruthless bar brawler, the fight remains the same and there is only one winner. To dive into the essence of this provocative parallel, start with the section "I" for individuality. Then learn and practice tactics like the left hook, the elbow jab, and scan your surroundings to make sure you have access to such multifaceted weapons as a broom, scarf, pocket change, or a hot drink. And remember, “You are the weapon. Everything else is a tool.”

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Distinguished poet/author Ethelbert Miller to address W&M

bookBy Jim Ducibella
William & Mary College
January 27, 2010

Acclaimed poet, professor, mentor and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller will make three appearances at the College of William and Mary to lecture and read from Tuesday Feb. 2 through Thursday, Feb 4.

All of his appearances are free and open to the public. Miller is here as part of the Patrick Hayes Writers Festival.

"We are bringing the literary artist, our distinguished university archivist, the college community and the general public together in our library and the classroom," said Joanne Braxton, Cummings Professor of English, at whose invitation Miller is appearing. "We are, in fact, opening the university classroom to the public. This is one example of the many ways in which William & Mary demonstrates continued excellence in defining what it means to be a public university in the 21st Century."
Miller Poster

On Tuesday, Feb. 2, 12:30 p.m., Miller will discuss “My Life as a Literary Activist” in room 305 of Washington Hall.

On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Miller will read from his 2009 memoir “The Fifth Inning” and other works at the Botetourt Gallery on the ground floor of Swem Library.

At 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4, in room 305 of Washington Hall, Miller will be joined by Beatriz B. Hardy, Swem Library’s Marian and Alan McLeod Director of Special Collections Research Center, to discuss Miller’s role as someone who documents literary movements and what archives do with writers’ papers.

At the same time, Miller and Dr. Hardy will discuss the College’s new exhibit of the works of the late poet Reetika Vazirani. Miller saved his correspondence with Vazirani, 2002 writer-in-residence at the College and winner of the 2003 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and donated them to Swem Library following her death in July, 2003.

The exhibit, positioned at the front entrance to the library, will be available for viewing for three weeks.

Miller was instrumental in getting Vazirani’s final collection of poems, entitled “Radha Says,” published late last year. Among its editors was Ravi Shankar.

Miller has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. In addition, he was formerly the chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and a faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College in Vermont.

Ethelbert MillerEthelbert Miller
The author of 11 books, Miller was once hailed by the Washington Post as “arguably the most influential person in Washington's vast and vibrant African American arts community.”

Mr. Miller was awarded the Mayor’s Art Award for literature in 1982. He received the Public Humanities Award from the D.C. Humanities Council in 1988. In 1993, the literary community of Washington awarded him the Columbia Merit Award.

His book, “In Search of Color Everywhere,” was awarded the 1994 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was a Book of the Month Club selection. Mr. Miller received the 1995 O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize.

In 1997, he was presented with the Stephen Henderson Poetry Award by the African American Literature and Culture Society. His book, “Fathering Words,” was selected by D.C. WE READ in 2003 for the one-book, one-city program sponsored by the D.C. Public Libraries.

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